White Supremacists’ embrace of Donald Trump, Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the US, Republicans refusing to take in refugees, Willie Horton, Jim Crow, they’re all the same thing.
Immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, women, LGBT, labor union members, and countless others have spent time in the Right’s crosshairs. No matter how much DNA we share, one hitch in a helix and Rush Limbaugh has a new radio show, Jerry Falwell has another group to blame for God’s anger.
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen." - Jerry Falwell on the 911 Terrorist attacks
That inherent desire to demonize “The Other” may be part of the human condition, some dark residual from our brain’s fearful reptilian past which demanded such quick assessment of friend or foe. Regardless of its origins, the Right’s exploitation of natural human differences – and their fundamental belief that ‘different = worse’ is a fetid tumor.
We had some experience with this during the Park 51 “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.
It was August 24th, 2010, an ordinary Tuesday, and Ahmed Sharif, a devoted Muslim and New York City taxi driver, had just started his shift. A passenger asked if Sharif was a Muslim and if he observed Ramadan. Yes, Sharif replied. The 21-year-old passenger told Sharif, “I have to bring you down.” He then reached through the plastic partition, slashed Sharif’s throat with his pocket knife, and repeatedly stabbed him in the arms and legs.
Weeks before this brutal attack, hate filled the news cycle as the right wing stirred up controversy around a proposal to build an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan. “A Victory Mosque on the graves of dead Americans!” said Pamela Geller from the perch of her bigoted stillettos. Unfortunately for religious liberty and Muslim Americans everywhere, top elected leaders from both parties – including: Sarah Palin, Harry Reid, Newt Gingrich, David Patterson, Howard Dean, and John McCain – joined the call for the community center be built somewhere other than a few blocks from Ground Zero (apparently the strip clubs on the same block were not nearly as offensive to the dead).
Determined to face down this wave of paranoia and intolerance, we created a four-part messaging campaign to defend and support the most American of ideals: the Freedom to Worship. We were the messenger for only one part of the campaign. The other three parts were conceived by the Agenda Project creative team and then pitched to other groups we felt could be the best messengers.
As my Muslim colleague said to me at the time – “Let’s face it. Nobody cares what three atheists, a fallen Catholic, and a Muslim think about the mosque.”
- . . . but they just might care what 700 religious leaders think about the right wing’s War on Prayer.
- . . . or what vets think about having fought for American values abroad only to see them denigrated here at home.
- . . . or what national security professionals thought about the recruiting tools created by the Right’s Propaganda for Terrorists.
We envisioned the entire four-part campaign and then pitched each piece to a different messenger. Rev. Dr. Katherine Henderson (Auburn Seminary) and Dr. Jim Wallis (Sojourners) immediately signed on to lead the message to the faith community. The Agenda Project shot the video, built the website, crafted the meta-narrative, and executed the PR strategy. Katherine and Jim wrote the letter for the website, recruited other religious leaders, and conducted interviews with the press. Vote Vets took the lead on the second message recruiting 14,000 vets and their families to sign a letter in support of Park 51. The National Security Network partnered with us for the third message.
We took on the fourth part – the part that called out Sen. Harry Reid, Gov. Patterson and Gov. Dean for throwing Muslims (and our country’s founding principles) under the bus for political expediency. Using some of the video we shot for the They Just Want to Pray video, we crafted a video with this message: “We expected it of you: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, John McCain. But we didn’t expect it of you: Sen. Reid, Gov. Patterson, Gov. Dean…“(each had publicly said the community center should move). We knew “liberal interest group calls out Democrats for Mosque position” would get their attention.
When Ahmed Sharif was stabbed, we decided to turn that tragedy into some good for the country. Overnight, we re-cut the video this time with all the politicians lumped together in one hateful group. The video made it clear that this violent attack was the direct result of the culture of fear and intolerance exacerbated by our elected officials. The video was played twice, in full, on MSNBC. Erica Payne appeared on Chris Matthews later that night to discuss it.
With the multi-layered, multi-messenger campaign, we shifted the media discourse from one of fear, anxiety, and hatred to one of distain for bigotry and intolerance. Unfortunately, that tide keeps coming back, making this kind of work all the more important.
It is easy to hold onto your ideals in happy times. It is harder when people are scared. It is in times of difficulty and uncertainty, our elected leaders have the most responsibility to act with integrity, tolerance, and compassion. It’s our job to make sure they do.
Pamela Geller and her ilk are unlikely to pack up the Hate Brigade anytime soon, but it is fairly easy to combat the hate (and the fear that’s underneath it) one issue at a time by employing the strategy we used for Park 51. Multiple messengers, multiple messages: one central idea: The Other is You.